Make sure you’re home by 8 if you need me! Image by Elvert Barnes licensed under Creative Commons.

This post is part of an ongoing series about how Prince George’s County could improve TheBus, its public bus system. You can read the previous post here, and the next installment here.

Prince George’s TheBus is currently the only bus system inside the Beltway with no weekend or evening service. Expansion of service beyond weekday daytime is the most common improvement requested by county residents, but there are no plans to implement it in the short-term.

Weekend and evening service are popular requests

TheBus is the only public transit service inside the Beltway, other than VRE commuter rail, that does not operate on nights and weekends. TheBus only operates Monday-Friday — though it does operate on some holidays on which Metro runs weekend service — and service ends by 8 pm or earlier.

In March, DW attended a public meeting where potential recommendations for the county’s Transit Vision Plan (a draft of which will be made public next month) were presented. According to the posters presented at the meeting, weekend service was the most common request in the public input survey, followed by evening service.

Weekend service was also the first priority of over three-quarters of the people who marked their preferences on the comment board at the March 12th meeting. Evening service came in second, followed by improvements to frequency.

At the meeting, posters with recommended changes for each of TheBus’s 29 routes were presented. While evening and Saturday service were suggested as long-term priorities for some of the routes, they were not listed as goals within the five-year horizon of the Transit Vision Plan.

Without weekend and evening service, TheBus will not be a fully functional transit network

By only offering weekday daytime service, TheBus is essentially locked into providing only marginal service, regardless of what an individual route needs. Prince George’s County has a high concentration of lower-wage shift workers, especially in the more transit-dependent inside-the-Beltway communities, whose commutes don’t follow a weekday nine-to-five schedule, and who need to be able to get home after evening shifts and get to work on weekends.

Less Henderson, of Prince George’s Advocates for Community-Based Transit, reports that when she discusses TheBus with riders — particularly in the southern part of the county where she lives — TheBus’s limited hours of operation always come up.

Passengers say they must try to get shifts that fit the schedule for TheBus so they can go home easily. One rider said, "I'm glad I have these [work] hours because if I didn’t, I don’t know what I'd do."

Some say they often have to rely on Uber or Lyft to get home: “I spend at least $15 a night getting home when my son or husband can’t pick me up."

While riders in all jurisdictions do need to contend with the fact that some bus services operate only on weekdays, Prince George’s County is unique in how limited its weekend service is. While some weekend service is provided by non-regional Metrobus routes and by the Central Maryland RTA (which serves Laurel), only 15% of local bus routes in the county operate on Saturdays, and only 11% operate on Sundays.

In comparison, the county with the next-least weekend service, Fairfax, has twice as much: 34% of its local routes operate on Saturday and 33% on Sunday. In Montgomery County, which is also suburban, 50% of local routes operate on Saturdays, and 38% on Sundays.

In the denser jurisdictions, Arlington is closer to Fairfax, with 39% of routes operating on Saturdays and 35% on Sundays. Meanwhile, Alexandria operates 67% of routes on Saturdays and 58% on Sundays, while the District has 63% of its local routes operating on both Saturdays and Sundays.

County-run bus systems and Metrobus non-regional routes are included. The Central Maryland RTA 301 and 302 are also counted for Prince George’s County. Data from pages G-5 to G-13 of the 2018 WMATA budget and from Metrobus system maps. Image by the author.

Transit services have a choice to make, between being a coverage service or a ridership service. By operating as a coverage service, Prince George’s County buses are just another cost in the county budget that are spread out and spread thin. By offering only minimal service with limited hours, TheBus was born into the “death spiral” that is hurting Metrorail as well. Travelers cannot rely on transit unless they know it will be there when they need it, and that the travel times will be reasonable.

TheBus is thus in a chicken-and-egg situation where poor service means the lowest ridership in the region, which weakens the case for improved service. It’s time for the Prince George’s County administration to move TheBus towards becoming ridership service, and not just a cost, for the same reason that every other jurisdiction inside the Beltway offers better transit connections: to create a real mobility option for a greener, more resilient, and livable county.

Not all routes necessarily need their service hours increased, but some would benefit greatly

At present, TheBus runs a large variety of routes with very different ridership levels: some are overcrowded while others are almost unused. Currently, the highest-ridership route, the 32, which runs from Clinton to the Naylor Road Metro station has a daily ridership of 800 passengers, while two routes, the 35S and the 53, have fewer than 40 daily passengers. The average route has a ridership of about 370 passengers.

Data from the Federal Transit Administration’s National Transit Database for 2016. Ridership is counted as “unlinked trips,” i.e. a transfer counts as a second trip.

Based on the average weekday and weekend ridership numbers on the other local bus networks in the DC suburbs, all of which have evening and weekend service, it seems likely that Saturday service on TheBus would get about half the ridership of weekday service, meaning that the busiest routes would have higher Saturday ridership than the average route’s weekday ridership.

While introducing weekend and evening service on very low ridership routes may not make sense, the higher ridership routes need to have it to provide more useful service for riders. This may also help with rush-hour crowding, if people have the option to take shopping and other less-timing-dependent trips at less busy times of day.

Evening service to the County Seat

Two of TheBus’s higher-ridership routes, the 20 (670 riders daily) and the 21 (456 riders daily) are special cases. Both routes serve the county courthouse and administration buildings in Upper Marlboro, connecting them to the Addison Road and New Carrollton Metro stations.

Transit to the county seat in Upper Marlboro is a major problem in Prince George’s County: only about half of county residents could make it to court in time for jury service using public transit. Running these routes in the evening wouldn’t matter for court business, which usually occurs during business hours, but it would solve a different issue.

With the last buses leaving for New Carrollton at 6:05 pm and Addison Road at 6:40 pm, it’s impossible for residents who attend or testify at evening hearings at the county administration building to return home by transit. Providing evening service on the 20 and 21 would be an important way to promote democratic involvement, even if ridership was low. Evening service on the 51, which acts as a circulator between government buildings and satellite parking in Upper Marlboro might also be worthwhile.

On the other hand, given that residential densities in Upper Marlboro and the vicinity are low, and that there is little business there except the county government, weekend service on the outer portions of these routes would be a lower priority than elsewhere in the county.

Difficulties could come from TheBus’s small size

One potential difficulty in adding weekend and evening service to TheBus routes is the system’s small size. Unlike larger bus networks like RideOn, TheBus has only a single garage serving all of its routes. Adding weekend and evening service to even one route would require keeping the garage and dispatching open later, entailing significant fixed costs beyond the usual cost per vehicle-hour of service.

For this reason, when evening and weekend service are introduced, they should be introduced on all of the high-ridership lines at once, and not on a trial basis on only one or two lines. A good start would be to provide weekend service on the 11 highest-ridership lines, all of which have ridership above 400 passengers a day at present.

Taken together, these routes serve about 65% of TheBus’s total ridership and include routes in the northern, central, and southern portions of the county, as well as the routes to Upper Marlboro. That means that no region will be completely deprived of extended service hours.

Prince George’s County has an important question to answer about what the role of TheBus is to be. For TheBus to be an effective contributor to mobility for large numbers of residents, its service needs to be expanded so that its major routes serve all their potential users.While the additional costs of weekend and evening service would not be inconsequential, this service would provide a major improvement to mobility for Prince George’s County residents.

The only real alternative is to give up on serving important routes and use the money to pay for improved local Metrobus service. Since Metrobus charges local jurisdictions significantly more per hour of service than the costs of operating TheBus, that would be a net loss for the county.

GGWash sometimes organizes around issues affecting our region. Should we consider advocacy around this topic? Let us know!

DW Rowlands is an adjunct chemistry professor and Prince George’s County native, currently living in College Park. More of their writing on transportation-related and other topics can be found on their website.  They also write on DC transportation and demographic issues for the DC Policy Center, where they are a Fellow. In their spare time, they volunteer for Prince George’s Advocates for Community-Based Transit. However, the views expressed here are their own.

Tracy Hadden Loh loves cities, infrastructure, and long walks on the beach looking for shark teeth. She holds a Ph.D. in city and regional planning from UNC-Chapel Hill. By day, she is a data scientist at the Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis at George Washington University. By night, she is an activist, a law enforcement spouse, and the mother of a toddler. She served two years representing Ward 1 on the Mount Rainier City Council in Prince George's County, MD.